Scoring below the cut but still depressed: What to do?

Updated: May 3

Depression in Teens and Children

Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions in childhood, especially during socially turbulent adolescence when the brain is rapidly changing and parent-child relationships are strained by the teen’s striving for independence and identity. To say nothing of isolation from COVID. Often parents of teens call me worrying about possible depression, but in the next breath say “but maybe it is just puberty.”

Because suicide is one of the most common causes of death among teens and is often associated with depression, we pediatricians have the scary job of sorting out symptoms and making a plan.

The Guidelines for Adolescent Depression in Primary Care (GLAD-PC)1,2 were revised in 2018 to help. This expert consensus document contains specific and practical guidance for all levels of depression. But for mild depression, GLAD-PC now advises pediatricians to go beyond “watchful waiting.” It states, “After initial diagnosis, in cases of mild depression, clinicians should consider a period of active support and monitoring before starting evidence-based treatment.”

Although a little vague, mild depression is diagnosed when:

  • there are “closer to 5” significant symptoms of depression

  • with “distressing but manageable” severity

  • only “mildly impaired” functioning

The most commonly used self-report adolescent depression screen, the Patient Health Questionnaire–Modified–9 (PHQ-9), has a recommended cut score of greater than 10, but 5-9 is considered mild depression symptoms. A clinical interview also is always required.

So what is this “active support” being recommended?

  • After making an assessment of symptoms, severity, and impact – and ruling out significant suicide risk – the task is rather familiar to us from other medical conditions.

  • We need to talk clearly and empathetically with the teen (and parents with consent) about depression and its neurological etiology, ask about contributing stress and genetic factors, and describe the typical course with optimism.

  • This discussion is critical to pushing guilt or blame aside to rally family support. Substance use – (including alcohol) both a possible cause and attempted coping strategy for depression – must be addressed because it adds to the risk for suicide or crashes and because it interacts with medicines.

Perhaps the biggest difference between active support for depression versus that for other conditions is that teens are likely reluctant, hopeless, and/or lacking the energy to participate in the plan. The plan, therefore, needs to be approached in smaller steps and build on prior teen strengths, goals, or talents to motivate them and create a feeling of reward to counteract general lethargy. You may know this teen used to play basketball or sing at church, or love playing with a baby sister – all activities to try to reawaken. Parents can help recall these and are key to setting up opportunities.

GLAD-PC provides a “Self-Care Success!” worksheet of categories for goal setting for active support. These goals include:

  • Stay physically active. Specify days/month, minutes/session, and dates and times.

  • Engage in spirituality and fun activities. Specify times/week, when, and with whom.

  • Eat balanced meals. Specify number/day and names of foods.

  • Spend time with people who can support you. Specify number/month, minutes/time, with whom, and doing what.

  • Spend time relaxing. Specify days/week, minutes/time, and doing what.

  • Determine small goals and simple steps. Establish these for a specified problem.